Monthly Archives: July 2012

Text Me, Maybe?

Student texting during class

Student texting during class (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My high school is a formidable fortress of red brick with a navy blue, metal roof in my memory. It is a place surrounded by quiet woods that eagles circle over. The dark, tinted windows encasing the school’s stairwells glisten from the outside and leave your car’s reflection rippling as it approaches the security gate where visitors must state their official business before entering.

I remember strict dress codes where girls were not able to show even the seductive hint of their shoulders. It was a world of humorous note passing to alleviate math class boredom, watching VHS tapes of mitosis during Biology, learning about Microsoft Excel during Computer Applications and dancing along to Ciara’s “1, 2 Step” at birthday parties. When a boy in my senior psychology class brought his brand new iPod with him to class one afternoon, he was the epitome of modernity. I graduated in 2007.

Although it has not been that long in “real time,” the world of mobile technology has rocketed ahead in five short years, leaving many in the education business stumbling to keep up. When I returned to my alma mater just two months ago to chat with high school juniors about the college search process, I was amazed at what greeted me in the halls and classrooms. Everyone had a smart phone where I had made it through four years of college without one. They were constantly texting and even playing music in the middle of their teachers’ opening addresses. I saw a kid composing music on an iPad outside of the chorus room and had to stop and do a double take.

While I realize that my old high school is better off than most and that many within it can afford expensive gadgets, that is beside the point. Yes, I understand the world has advanced technologically, and that’s great. There is much to be said about the benefits smart phones and the like bring to our daily lives, from instant access to email to the ability to read up-to-the-minute news. But this isn’t an issue of accessibility as much as it is one of respect–for one’s education and one’s educators.

The teachers in my memory rarely allowed our attention to waver from what they were saying. In fact, they readily confiscated cell phones and ripped ear buds from eardrums. Yet after spending a day roaming the halls, I had the distinct feeling that things had changed.

“The kids are supposed to only use [cell phones] in the halls or at lunch. I have noticed that half the time it’s the parents that are calling the kids in the middle of class for something ridiculous. I don’t approve of texting in class, but now it’s so prevalent that unless it’s all the time instead of work, I just about have to give up. What happened to not allowing them in the building at all?” complains one Spanish teacher.

Although her students are allowed to listen to music while doing independent work, she believes social media use is out of control and vividly recalls a day she chose to start an ill-fated conversation with a student about it. “Right before class started this girl was taking a picture, so I said, ‘Are you going to put that up on Facebook right now?’ And she says, horrified, ‘Oh no! Nobody uses Facebook anymore. We all tweet.’”

Of course, there is some irony in the fact that I got in touch with instructors to ask them about this issue via Facebook and that they all responded fairly rapidly. I was amused–and must admit somewhat gleeful–when our group Facebook message led to some teachers educating others about the ways in which they are combating the rise of disruptive cell phones in the classroom. “Cell phone use has no purpose in the classroom. I, along with several other teachers on my hall, will be requiring students to place their cell phones in a holder within my classroom next year. If the phone is away from them, they cannot use it. My fear with the phones is using them to cheat on assignments or the increase of teacher sabotage by recording the teacher and using it [against him or her] out of context” explains a social studies teacher.

A history teacher chimed in to say, “Before the iPhone came out, kids could text without looking at their phones. They had the digits’ locations memorized. I knew they were texting but couldn’t take the phones away because I couldn’t see them. Today, girls either leave their purses–the BIG bag is en vogue–on their desk at an angle, so the teacher can’t see the phone or cross their legs and place the phone in their lap and pretend to haphazardly look down at the floor.”

She admits that she gives her students an ultimatum when she sees the phones. They can either put it away immediately or have it confiscated. School policy states that on the second offense, a parent must pick up the phone. Yet many parents claim they cannot run down to the school to grab their child’s phone, so many administrators wind up having to return them to the students anyway.

She has also noticed that those who text constantly almost always perform less well on tests than those who pay attention in class, explaining “That’s common sense. Brain’s can’t perform two tasks at the same time.” A scholarly article published in Teaching of Psychology in 2010 upholds this idea. It speaks of a study conducted on college students who were split into two groups. Both watched a video and were told to take notes on it as its material would appear on their next test. Yet a ringing cell phone disrupted one group’s movie experience, and those participants performed significantly worse on the part of the exam that covered information they could not hear as well as the other group due to the ringing.

Maya Cohen writes in “Cell Phones at School: Should They Be Allowed?” that cell phones allow kids to be in touch with their parents in the event of an emergency. Yet she also argues that ring tones and text-message alerts can prove extremely disruptive during lectures if students forget to silence their phones. Plus, cell phones have been used by students to call in false bomb threats to schools, and of course, they could be key tools in effective cheating and cyber-bullying.

According to David Raths in “Revisiting Cell Phone Bans in Schools,” 24 percent of K-12 schools in the U.S. ban cell phones altogether, and 62 percent allow phones on their grounds but ban them in the classroom. Nevertheless, organizations are eager to explore the market for mobile educational technology. PBS and the International Society for Technology in Education have created many educational apps geared toward students while the Princeton Review and Kaplan now offer text-based test preparation for the SAT.

The very recent decision of public schools in Montgomery, AL to allow cell phone use in the classroom sparked a debate of its own. Some argue that teachers can walk up and down desk aisles to monitor what their students are searching for online. An English professor from my college, however, has made the point to me that bringing devices like the iPad, which allow users to flow between Google, a Pages document, Facebook and online shopping with the sweep of a finger, to class would make it incredibly challenging for educators to monitor their usage for academic purposes.

Greg Graham argues in “Cell Phones in Classrooms? No! Students Need to Pay Attention” that New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the right idea when he instituted a cell phone ban in 2007 for the city’s public school system. He writes that today’s teenagers cannot remember a time when we weren’t so wired, when life didn’t move as quickly and accessing information took longer. He laments kids sleeping with cell phones beneath their pillows so that the buzzing of incoming messages will startle them from slumber. Neurological research is now confirming that we think and perform the best when what we are focusing on has our undivided attention. That means that texting and listening to the teacher discuss the causes of the Civil War is not the best way to ace the next exam.

As Michael Waterson mentions in “The Techno-Brain,” there is now little doubt that our love affair with technology is rewiring the very structure of our brains. Mobile devices constantly pinging and buzzing are cultivating a new ability to be drawn to distractions and an inability to switch tasks with ease.

Yet there is still hope for academic America. Students can be trained in the art of “single-tasking” in the classroom, if, as Dr. Naomi Baron, executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning desires, “a classroom (becomes) a room for sharing ideas, a space for contemplation, a setting for social interaction. None of these functions harmonizes with intrusion from the outside.”

No doubt high school students can belt out the chorus to Carly Rae Jepsen’s summer smash-hit “Call Me Maybe” or argue about the benefits and drawbacks of Twitter if you give them the opportunity. But whether or not they are allowing themselves unlimited and uninterrupted access to a solid–not to mention free–education is much more difficult to measure now that the rules of communication have changed.


Many the Miles

You've Got Mail (soundtrack)

You’ve Got Mail (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“How far do I have to go to get to you? Many the miles” sings Sara Bareilles in one of her hits. While she may have been talking about love and emotional distance, I’ve been thinking about those words lately and how they apply to friendships tested by geographical distance.

When you’re growing up in your community as a kid, all of your friends are right there waiting for you around every corner. You see them in the classroom, at church, on the field at sports practices, and hanging out in the neighborhood pool. Then, if you’re lucky, you move on to college and have around-the-clock access to friends that feel more like family by the end of four years. Craving a late-night snack break? Someone’s right there with you, enjoying that gooey quesadilla. Want a study buddy to make it through the latest, nastiest math problem set? Your friend does too. Need to vent out your frustrations about how the entire world is unfair? There they are again providing the Kleenex.

But what happens after everyone walks across the stage and begins his or her journey into the future? What about when some of the most important people in your life now live hundreds or even thousands of miles away? This isn’t a romantic relationship–you’re not about to uproot your life to move in with your boyfriend and rush off to Target together to pick out gauzy curtains.

You know that your friends need to go where their economic or academic opportunity beckon them–even if their bright and shining lanterns are leading them down a path directly opposed to the one you find yourself taking. That’s the mature and responsible viewpoint. Yet that doesn’t always comfort you when you’re dealing with the inconvenience and frustration of rarely seeing them.

Sure, you can email and text occasionally. And for the more in-depth news debriefings, Skype and phone calls will always be ready to lend a helping hand. But here, I must pause and add as a side note that Facebook is not a love language. We’re all guilty of relying too much on social media to feel “connected” to each other, when, in my opinion, you need face-to-face time with people to truly forge and maintain relationships with them.

But as we enter the “We’re All Grown Up” phase of life, there are work schedules to contend with as well as grocery shopping trips, law school exam seasons, evening subway commutes, and weekends spent at significant others’ family’s beach house. It’s hard to keep up with everybody. Sometimes it’s hard just to keep up with yourself. There are so many distractions to wade through that it can feel like you’re sinking in quicksand in a South American jungle with no visible means of support. You find yourself wondering: what kind of priority are you in your friends’ lives? And are they all priorities in yours now that the late-night frat parties are over, and the sun has come up? For me, my friends are one of my highest priorities, but I respect that that is not the case for everyone.

Naturally, we all want to feel special, so sometimes not getting a friend’s validation often enough can make you want to just forget about him or her for a while and as the old saying goes, “call the whole thing off.” But somehow that isn’t the answer because you know, deep down, you really do care about all these people. Even if sometimes they can be self-absorbed, over-extended young adults who can’t be bothered to pick up the phone or give you a few days notice if they’re going to be in the area. Really, you do care. Especially because looking in the mirror shows that you can be that person sometimes too.

Still, if you’re lucky enough to have found some great human beings out there–and I must say that although there are the occasional moments of frustration, I definitely am–you’ll be able to spend a long weekend with someone or grab lunch as you both happen to find yourselves in the same place at the same time. Still, it’s not exactly the same dynamic as it used to be. Not only is the person sitting across from you at said lunch table different, but you’re different too. And the conversation is different. The easy-breezy french fry stealing episodes and cafeteria chats about upcoming movies from days of yore might seem shallow and out-of-place in this new relationship paradigm. You can, of course, lob some old inside jokes back and forth, but you don’t have that level of day-to-day familiarity with your friend like you once did. Thus, both of you somehow feel that you need to catch each other up on “Major Life Events” Diane Sawyer-style until it feels more like you’re on a job interview than enjoying time with one of your nearest and dearest.

So how do you retain some of that flowing familiarity and closeness that you used to have with these people? Well, for starters: stay connected to them! Call them once every few weeks and see how they’re doing or shoot them an email. If you see or hear something that reminds you of a conversation you once had or a trip that you took together, let them know about it. And while you’re at it, it’s probably not a bad idea to show a genuine interest in their new pursuits, even though you’re no longer a constant part of them. You’ll make their day–I promise. All it takes is a few minutes of your time to show that you care about them and still value their presence in your life.

Is it hard to stay connected to long-distance friends? Absolutely. Will you inevitably drift apart a bit as you lead different lives in different cities? Absolutely. But do you want to run into each other twenty years from now at an alumni function and feel awkward as you realize that–now that your career is more stable and your youngest child no longer needs constant supervision, of course–you miss them and don’t even know who they are anymore? Probably not.

Is Your Confidence of No Consequence?

Pretty Little Liars (season 1)

Pretty Little Liars (season 1) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Got a secret, can you keep it? Swear this one you’ll save! Better lock it in your pocket, taking this one to the grave. If I show you, then I know you won’t tell what I said. Because two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.”

This catchy opening song from the hit ABC Family show Pretty Little Liars, while dramatic, does seemingly  sum up the darker underbelly of human interactions. Sure, the dictionary defines gossip as: “Idle talk or rumor, especially about the private or personal affairs of others.” But are we just talking amongst ourselves to pass away the time, or does gossip serve a higher (or lower) purpose?

One lecture I attended in college made the argument that members of small communities love to talk about each other in order to stay connected and feel part of a group. And certainly, some gossip is good gossip, as we spread positive stories of others’ accomplishments and happy moments through our literal and virtual social networks. But what about when gossip turns ugly? As a woman, I cannot speak much about what men talk about amongst themselves, but I have noticed that my male friends and acquaintances focus much less on others during our  conversations than my female friends do. Women seem to want to jump straight into the nitty-gritty details of their own relationships (romantic, platonic, familial, work, you name it) and their perceptions of how the relationships between others are faring. Men, on the other hand, most often talk to me about their school and work accomplishments, their future plans, what they did last Saturday, why Obama / Romney /fill-in-the-blank is a moron, whether the Big Bang Theory is ludicrous or not . . . you get the idea.

So if this aforementioned blanket statement can be taken as somewhat factual–and I know there are many exceptions out there, but I’m only speaking of generalities at the moment–why might this be? Evolutionary psychologists often argue that women, as the historically more nurturing and child-oriented partner in the battle of the sexes, evolved to communicate quickly and effectively with their children and neighbors. They might say that men, as hunters, did not need to speak much to their fellow men as they tracked game and hunted in Africa tens of thousands of years ago. Yet the groups of women left alone back at the camp site or small settlement  needed to forge relationships with other women, to “tend and befriend” if you will for their communal survival as they reared children, gathered nearby fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts, warned of intruders encroaching on their territory, and generally tried to win everybody over in the “united we stand, divided we fall” ideology. For that to happen successfully, these women would need to know their neighbors’ news almost as intimately as they knew their own.

Once again, this is not to say all men avoid discussing the dynamics of relationships or that all women run around gossiping about each other every day. Actually, I am more interested in gossip as a method of communication than I am in who said what to whom. So the bottom line is: Why can’t we keep that juicy piece of information our friend texts us about or whispers to us right before we enter the party to ourselves? Were the lecturers right that gossip makes us feel like we are tightly knit into the fabric of a community, that we are in the know and have friends? Otherwise, let’s be honest, who else would have told us something worth sharing in the first place?

I was taken aback one day when I shared personal information with a friend (Person A) only to have one of her friends (Person B), who I didn’t know as well, discuss it with me later that afternoon. When I asked Person A how Person B found out, she said, “Oh come on, you know that when you tell one of us, you tell all of us.” But is that right? No matter how close a group of friends–male or female–may be, shouldn’t your own individual confidence count for something? Maybe I should have explicitly said, “Please don’t pass this on down the grapevine,” but isn’t that implied once the subject matter gets personal? Yet, on the other hand, if you have no idea that your friend’s mother was just in a bad car accident because nobody tells you, that could put you at a distinct disadvantage because you just won’t be as sensitive and sympathetic to your friend as you would be if you knew.

There are no clear-cut answers, and perhaps people just gossip because they’re bored or because it’s fun. But I also tend to think that we are comparing and judging ourselves against each other too. I have one relative who is convinced that nobody wants to hear other people’s good news, but if you have something to complain about, everyone will roll out the red carpet for you to come moan with them in the peanut gallery. Do we feel better about ourselves when we hear someone is worse off than we are or inwardly cringe when we hear of a friend’s great achievements if our own lives aren’t clicking along like a well-oiled machine? At the very least, gossip provides us an idea of what’s possible. If, for example, your neighbor’s son Bob just got accepted into Yale, than you can ignore those cliches that “Nobody ever gets into the Ivy Leagues” when it’s your own child’s turn to apply to college.

Those same evolutionary psychologists from before who were opinionated about the nature of female and male conversation also tend to think that gossip about who is romantically involved with who serves a higher evolutionary purpose. They say it is in our best interest to find out if someone is available to us as a mating partner or not, arguing that one of our primary goals in life is to pass along our genes to the next generation. That’s definitely something to think about when one considers the recent swirl of rumors and speculation surrounding the break-up of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise. Do we only care about such Hollywood gossip–and our own friends’ love lives for that matter– because in the depths of our subconscious minds, we know that break-ups place both partners back on the meat market?

There’s no doubt about it, information is power. But just how much power do you want to wield? And why?

Off with your . . . finger?

Portrait of Anne Boleyn, Henry's second queen;...

Portrait of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second queen; a later copy of an original painted in about 1534 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometime in middle school, the rich and never-ending world of European history entered my awareness. I loved the idea of structured, English society with its thatched-roof villages and market squares.  I could easily visualize dark gray castles surrounded by woods and rippling fields of wheat. Of course, the world I constructed in my mind probably looked a lot more like the setting of Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott” than it did an actual representation of reality, but that was beside the point.

King Henry VIII’s sixteenth-century court cast a particular spell over me, and to this day, I find the man and his many wives intriguing. Aside from being a hot-headed ruler, marrying six times, and fathering three future heads of state, Henry is most famous for creating The Church of England when the Catholic Pope Clement VII refused to grant his first annulment from Catherine of Aragon.

The woman whom he wished to marry instead, Anne Boleyn, has gone down in history as some sort of dark-haired enchantress. She did spend ample time in the French court, and thus it was said she knew how to manipulate Henry, promising to bear him his first son if only she could become queen.While she did give birth to Queen Elizabeth I—but alas had no sons—and successfully wore the crown for three short years, Anne’s life ended abruptly when she was beheaded at Henry’s command for committing adultery, a charge that many historians believe to be false.

As she spent her final days locked in The Tower of London, whispers spread through the kingdom that she possessed a sixth finger on her right hand, the mark of a witch. These rumors were helped along by Nicholas Sanders’ writings in 1586, half a century after her death. Yet when, as a young teenager, I had the great privilege to receive an insider’s tour of the London Parliament from a friend of the family who worked there, I was shocked to hear this woman point to an ornate portrait of Anne Boleyn as we walked along a hallway and mention her remarkably long sleeves, which were meant to hide this extra finger.

While I have no idea if Anne suffered from such an abnormality or not, the discovery of another finger fragment has created much upheaval in the science world over the last few years. In 2008 a roughly 40,000-year-old fossilized pinky bone fragment was found in Denisova Cave in southern Siberia and is said to have belonged to a young girl. What intrigued scientists most was that the bone fragment belonged neither to a human nor to a Neanderthal. More strangely still, the DNA from the finger seemed unusually similar to the DNA of those who currently inhabit the Pacific Islands.

Christened a “Denisovan” remain, the girl’s finger found its way to a research lab where its DNA underwent genetic sequencing technology by an international team of researchers. They found that Denisovans shared a common origin with Neanderthals but were genetically different from them, meaning that they descended from the same ancient population of Neanderthals who themselves had taken a different evolutionary route from the ancestors of modern humans even earlier in archeological history.

Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, along with many others, was shocked to learn that this new group had DNA that matched about 5 percent of the genome of the modern Oceania population, suggesting that interbreeding took place between Denisovans and modern humans. It had already been discovered that Neanderthals interbred with the ancestors of all modern-day, non-African populations.

Thus, instead of modern humans slowly migrating out of Africa thousands of years ago and out-competing Neanderthals for food and shelter, it seems like our evolutionary past will be portrayed as a more complex mural on museum walls in the future. It now appears that a group of our ancestors left Africa somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago, with one branch evolving into Neanderthals and migrating to Europe while the other headed East and developed into Denisovans. When an anatomically modern group of humans left Africa about 70,000 years ago, they came across Neanderthals and interbred so that roughly 2.5 percent of the genome of all non-Africans is made up of Neanderthal DNA. Later, one last band of modern humans found the Denisovans and mated with them also.

Peter Parham, an immunologist at the Standford University School of Medicine, believes as few as six couplings between humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans could have led to the current genetic diversity we now see. Since the latter groups lived in Europe and Asia for so many thousands of years before modern humans arrived on the scene, they evolved ways to fight certain diseases. When modern humans mated with them, they also received a dose of helpful DNA for their immune systems. So powerful and beneficial that it remains with us to this day. On the other hand, this archaic immune material might also be responsible for autoimmune diseases like diabetes, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.

Although, much like Anne Boleyn, the Neanderthals and Denisovans met their demise, literal parts of them live on in us, shaping us into a hybrid species. Clearly, mating partners matter. And to think, all these stories started with a finger . . .

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